19th European Social Services Conference

The headline of this year’s European Social Services Conference was 'Building an Active and Caring Society'. How do we get the balance right between caring for vulnerable people and helping them to be ‘active’? What does the current economic crisis mean?

In front of 350 social directors, service managers, senior professionals, political decision-makers, researchers and campaigners from 32 countries, the opening speakers set out to challenge the audience’s some common pre-conceptions about these questions.

Secretary of State Jarosław Duda argued that in an economic crisis “a passive attitude, low activity in the labour market and dependence on state care is not sustainable”. Similarly, UK Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, said: “It is not fair to write off people merely because they have been on long-term sickness benefit…” He also outlined the government’s new Work Programme, in which providers are paid for successes in helping the long-term unemployed into work and to stay in work.

Piotr Pawłowski, the President of Friends of Integration Association, lamented a patronising attitude towards people with disabilities: “We live in a society which is overly caring and which doesn’t understand the needs of disabled people. People with disabilities are not different. They are not weak or helpless. This is a misconception fed to us by society and by the media."

Pavel Tychtl from the European Commission’s DG for Communication described how the European Year of Volunteering aims to “encourage active citizenship, participation and solidarity beyond 2011.” He provided an important reminder that ‘activity’ is not only about work, but also about doing something valuable in society to help others.

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Two days, 23 workshops and many animated conversations later, speakers in the final panel session were keen to discuss the current economic challenges facing social services.

Virginia Brás Gomes, Senior Policy Advisor at the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity in Portugal said that the economic crisis has “made governments more aware of the core obligations the state needs to fulfil”. Likewise, Sławomir Piechota, Chair of the Social Affairs Committee of Poland’s lower House of Parliament said: “I believe that the principle of solidarity is the best path to reach objectives … and difficult times can help recover the understanding of the principle of solidarity.”

Davor Dominkus, Director General for Social Affairs in Slovenia’s central government, drew on the notion of solidarity and cohesion in the European context: “it is important to set minimum social standards at the European level."

Facing the challenge of shrinking resources and increased demand in Denmark, Steinar Eggen Kristensen, Head of Social Services in the City of Aarhus, said: social services. “We can’t solve today’s problems by using yesterday’s methods: we need to innovate. Innovating is about knowing what works and what does not”. Virginia Bras Gomes recalled the importance of hearing the voice of service users not only at local but also at national level: “The more empowered users are ... the more governments will come round to the understanding that finances and resources are important, but it’s not just about doing more with less, but doing what is right with less.”

Returning to the theme of an active and caring society, Georgia’s Minister for Labour, Health and Social Affairs, Andrew Urushadze, said: “The best social aid is to make people self-sustainable and making them part of the local community, who will play an essential role in helping them.”

Chairing the session, Hugh Frazer, finished with a call to the audience: “You need to make your voices heard about the sort of society we want to live in.”